NEW YORK— It was Christmas Eve, yet nothing but a barren Christmas tree sat in Judy Newton’s home. Her house was void of ornamental lights, and her fridge lacked the food she needed to make her holiday dinner. This was a typical scenario for Newton during this time of the year, and frankly, she wouldn’t prefer to have it any other way.
Newton, a retired NYPD detective, has instead been busy organizing the toy drive that supplements the annual Christmas Eve lunch for the homeless at the City Hall Restaurant. She and other volunteers gathered 5,000 toys this year.
“I would only hope that more people would get involved and do similar things elsewhere,” she said. “My Christmas tree is undecorated, but it’s okay. You must do the right thing.”
Her toy drive was in collaboration with the annual Christmas Eve lunch for the homeless at the City Hall Restaurant. The restaurant, rated as a very expensive ($$$$) but excellent eatery by New York Magazine, gave three-course meals to over 200 needy people during this event.
Henry Meer, the restaurant’s owner, was oblivious to how much has been spent on these lunches. “We just give as much as is needed to feed the people who come, and the volunteers…We do it because we can do it,” he said. “This is not about money.”
Instead, what is gained is a rare moment when people’s fascination with the commodity of holidays is put on hold. The community comes together to be reminded what it means to give.
“It brings a little love to life,” said Rick Babchak, 56, a publisher who has volunteered at the event for the past few years. He volunteers with his wife and four daughters.
“They give more to us than we to them,” he said. “This is for the homeless children, and their mothers too, this is their day. Seeing them happy brings happiness during Christmas time.”
Cal Jones, former Manhattan Borough Historian, has been volunteering at the event for 11 years.
“These are loving families, really, it’s just that they’ve fallen upon misfortune. Many of them are unemployed,” Jones said.
Diana Florence, 42, a prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, has been coming to volunteer for the past seven years with her two children.
She felt it was important to bring her children to this event every year. “With all the materialism and gifts that comes with Christmas…we have to realize that there are people who live so close to us yet have so little,” she said. “It helps us appreciate what we have.”
Robert Harris, a retired NYPD officer, has been volunteering as Santa at the event for the past 13 years.
“It’s nice to just see the smiles on their faces. They come with apprehension and go with big smiles. Seeing that makes it all worthwhile,” Harris said.
The lunch fed two groups. One was organized by the New York City Housing Authority, who brought in people from the Far Rockaways who were displaced during Sandy. Later in the afternoon, a following lunch was served for a new group brought in by the Department of Homeless Services.
Sandra Lavia, 44, suffered severe damage in her home in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy.
“FEMA doesn’t cover food, they don’t give food stamps,” she said. Lavia bought large bulks of food for storage, and lost nearly all of it. She is having trouble getting back on her feet.
“This lunch is very nice, very nice,” she said.
Lavia has three children. Her fraternal twins—Mary and James—are nine years old. Her older son, Jordan, is 11.
“Can you come to our house for Christmas? We’ll give you cookies,” James said, attempting to bribe Santa.
“I can make you eggnog if you come,” Mary said.
Lavia sat back and relaxed for a moment, laughing at how children will still be children even during difficult times.